Can Social Media Activism be Truly Grassroots?

In my last blog I wrote about how two young women had used the internet to campaign (successfully as it turns out) to get the New Zealand singer, Lorde, to cancel her concert in Tel Aviv because of Israel’s violence against Palestinian people and their occupation of Palestine. There are numerous examples of Social Media being used for progressive causes (#MeToo, BlackLivesMatter, Occupy, Resist to name a few), but can the social media really be used for grassroots organizing?

There are a number of competing, and contradictory arguments about whether internet access and social media channels serve to increase or reduce inequality and the information divide. In the book ‘How The World Changed Social Media’ (Miller et al., 2015) the authors identify the apparent dichotomy: One side argues that because social media is not accessible in many parts of the world due to educational and internet resources being confined often to urban and middle-class people, it is likely to introduce greater inequality in society. While the ‘techno- utopians’ see social media as a way for addressing inequality and point out that internet access gives disadvantaged people access to greater resources and information.

It is true that the internet allows us to do things which were barely thinkable 20 years ago. This term ‘technological affordances’ is used to describe the new functionality available to people as technology develops (Tufeki, 2017). In this period the great affordances are the ability to communicate across space and over time, to share information immediately in the form of text, voice, visuals and multi-media. The internet has allowed anyone to publish – but does that make it a tool for equality?

A Facebook post by Socialist Activist Munyaradzi Gwisai - formerly an MP in Zimbabwe who was imprisoned by Mugabe for holding meetings to discuss the Arab Spring. This Image of police brutality against a union (ZCTU) organized rally against austerity is from October 2018. Alerting people to the detention of 6 Activists.

A Facebook post by Socialist Activist Munyaradzi Gwisai – formerly an MP in Zimbabwe who was imprisoned by Mugabe for holding meetings to discuss the Arab Spring. This Image of police brutality against a union (ZCTU) organized rally against austerity is from October 2018. Alerting people to the detention of 6 Activists.

In his book ‘Digital revolutions’ Symon Hill examines activist movements, Anti-Austerity, Arab Spring Uprisings, Fighting Corporations and those for Women’s Equality, with significant Social Media components. He looks at numerous examples from 2008 to 2012 in an effort to identify why some, which peaked with hundreds of thousands on the streets, petered out with little or no discernable change while others led to the overthrow of regimes (Hill, 2013).

He points out that main stream media channels missed (or deliberately ignored) the bubbling tensions which were being expressed at very local levels or via social media channels (as was reported in Ireland, Greece and Spain in the ‘sudden’ upsurge in protests against the EU/IMF imposed austerity measures (Cox and Nilsen, 2015), and were taken aback at the speed of, and numbers taking part in, the protests.

The spark for virtually all of the protest movements during the period of 2008-2012 were economic causes; Food, Prices, Inequality, Austerity, Corruption. However, though they began with economic demands, they quickly transformed into political uprisings, looking for the overthrow of governments and even systems. Importantly, in Egypt, where the protest movement caused the toppling of a dictator, the activists were not just middle class, they also included the very poor and it was this broader involvement which led to Mubarak’s ousting. This conclusion is supported by sociologist, Betsy Leondar-Wright (quoted in Hill’s book) who has examined various activist movements and their class character. She concludes that the most successful movements are those with cross-class support.

Zeynep Tufeki, in his book ‘Twitter and Tear Gas’ argues that the social media organized protests, with their horizontal organisation are motivated by a desire for participation, voice and agency which is denied the young and the poor in many parts of the world; “ . . many of these protests spring from a deep lack of faith that they will be able to achieve these goals through institutional or electoral means.” (Tufeki, 2017)

Many others have reported the positive impact of the social media related protests in terms of breaking down artificial barriers and exposing underlying causative mechanisms – in Israel protest movements included Palestinian and Israeli activists, in Egypt Muslim and Christian. While the revolutions have faded for the time being, those blurred lines may continue to undermine the status-quo.

Others, including an exiled Saudi Arabian activist Manal al-Sharif, have condemned the likes of Facebook and Twitter, and the companies that own them,  saying recently that these social media giants have become tools for oppressive governments and facilitate trolls to deliberately silence campaigners. “Twitter is really a powerful tool, and its being used against us,” she said. Al-Sharif stated subsequently, that while Twitter had “saved her life” as a campaigner in Saudi Arabia, it had transmogrified into a platform for mobs of “trolls, pro-government mobs and bots”, many paid for by oppressive governments.

Others point to the use of social media by Fascist, Homophobic, Racist and Misogynistic groups, spreading bigotry and promoting violence against Women and minorities.

John Postill describes a grouping he calls ‘techno-pragmatists’. These are people who have a clear and ‘practical’ understanding of the limits and possibilities of new technologies for political change (Postill, 2014).

Symon Hill concludes that “When the House of Saud finally falls, social media will not be the cause”. The cause will be those mobilizing against years of oppression, sexism and corruption. Facebook and Twitter did not cause the fall of Mubarak nor cause the Irish Government to stop Water Privatisation. Social media are tools, not the cause. They are important tools and allow organisers to link with activists, while keeping people informed about what is happening or has happened. They allow communication and debate across locations and time, they create a shared identity and reduce the isolation of activists by building common cause.

SO the answer to the question “can social media activism really be grassroots?” is; it depends!!

References

Cox, L. and Nilsen, A. (2015) ‘A Global Social Movement Wave’, Progress in Political Economy, (May). Available at: http://ppesydney.net/a-global-social-movement-wave/.

Denskus, T. (2018) ‘Communication for Development MA Program History , Pedagogy & Application’, (January).

Hill, S. (2013) Digital Revolutions: Activism in the Internet Age. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd.

Miller, D. et al. (2015) How The World Changed Social Media, How the World Changed Social Media. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004.

Postill, J. (2014) ‘Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: A theory of protest formulas’, Convergence, 20(4), pp. 402–418. doi: 10.1177/1354856514541350.

Tufeki, Z. (2017) Twitter and Tear Gas. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

 

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2 comments

  1. You raise some interesting points in this article and I like that you bring points from both a positive and negative perspective as I think that it is important to recognise both aspects of social media in this regard!
    It’s important that you recognise that social media is the tool and not the driving force behind these changes as I think this is something that is often not emphasised enough when the tools are credited for the successes or blamed for the failures of these movements.
    You mention that the internet allows us to do many things that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, do you think that the speed in which these changes occurred has had negative impacts on the way social media and ICTs are being used in protests and development more generally?
    I’m also curious about how has the interaction with social media changed since the Arab Spring protests in 2010 and what differences do you see between those movements and the more recent # phenomena such as the #metoo movements? As even in the past eight years there have been big changes in the way social media is used.
    One of the key criticisms of the Arab Spring (in Tufeki’s work especially) was the lack of structure that led to many movements petering out after a time. Even in the Arab Spring we have seen a coup, continued instability and civil war since the protests and overthrowing of governments. How can these positive beginnings be continued in a more sustainable way and what role can social media play in this regard?

    Thanks for an interesting read!

  2. This is a really thought-provoking and thoroughly researched piece that I have taken a lot from. I very much appreciated your nuanced approach to the positive and negative aspects of social media use over the past decade – and your recognition of the powerful role which it has played in many recent social movements. I think all too often, social media activism can get easily dismissed as mere ‘clicktivism’, in the vein of the notorious ‘Kony 2012’ campaign, when recent history show the galvanising power it can have to get people out and engaged in so-called ‘real’ activism on the streets. I found the quote from Betsy Leondar-Wright on successful campaigns gaining ‘cross-class support’ to be especially enlightening.

    In their introduction to Gender, development and ICTs, Gender & Development (2018), Amy O’Donnell & Caroline Sweetman remind us that it would be foolish to believe modern ICTs – social media included, would be necessarily positive and equally useful to humanity, and I think you have hit the nail on the head in describing how Facebook and Twitter seem to have transformed from tools for freedom, to weapons of oppression around the world.

    This blog has opened a lot of questions for me, and I will be looking into the extensive reading list you’ve provided. Great post!